“I moved (to Spain) alone when I was 16. And I remember crying every day, for at least two weeks, when I was away from home,” says Ishan Pandita.
There is a collective silence in the phone call before he continues with his story.
“But then you get used to it. And then you get into the system, you grow up with it. I think those days helped me a lot. I left at such a young age; I had sacrificed a lot,” he adds.
“And that builds you as a person, not just on the field, but off it as well. You grow a character and you mature faster.”
Newly-signed Jamshedpur FC striker Ishan Pandita has been an enigma in the past few years. Especially since news started emerging about an Indian footballer making heads turn in Spain. A mystery footballer with the potential to be a superstar.
“Who is this boy?” the curious asked.
“Why had we not heard about him?” others wondered.
But most importantly, “Can he solve the national team’s striker crisis?” the fans chimed in.
Not the next Chhetri
Ishan Pandita has a very specific answer though. “Ishan likes scoring goals,” he says, addressing himself in third-person with a self-belief that is hard to go un-noticed.
“If I have to play on the wings and score goals then I will, but I see myself as a number nine. In my opinion, India doesn't have a number nine. And that's where I think I fit in. And time will tell if I can live up to the expectation,” he says.
To an outsider, Ishan Pandita’s confidence might sound borderline arrogant and out of place for a forward who struggled for minutes in his debut season in the Indian Super League. After all, it is not every day that you come across an Indian footballer who says:
“I’m not the next (Sunil) Chhetri; I am going to make my own story.”
But for those who know Ishan Pandita, the confidence sums up the hardened footballer who has jumped multiple hurdles to be where he is today. It shows the confidence in one’s abilities, perhaps summed up by his goal-scoring cameos in the 2020-21 season for FC Goa.
Ishan Pandita – The English and Spanish hybrid
Ishan’s foray into the world of sports, especially football and swimming, started after the Pandita family moved to the Philippines when he was around 6 years old. His school, the British School of Manila, was heavily into promoting sports and it didn’t take Ishan too long to get going.
“I was the kid who just wanted to play and never read books. I would wake up at four in the morning when I was maybe six-seven years old. And put in the effort,” remembers Ishan.
It was his performance at the Gothia Cup and a subsequent opportunity to train in Europe that finally convinced everyone of Ishan Pandita’s seriousness. After completing his tenth class back in Bengaluru, Ishan switched to Spain where he was part of UD Almeria’s youth system and later played with CD Leganes.
“It was hard, I'm not gonna lie. I remember the first year I went to Spain, we'd get very little food. My dad had just given me very little pocket money. And I was surviving with that. But I guess that's part of the journey,” explains Ishan.
In Spain, Ishan was just hungry to learn. He quickly picked up the Spanish way of football, sometimes contrasting to his early lessons in British school, and developed into a physical forward who is difficult to defend against. But it is the mental health aspect of the game that Ishan is more vocal about.
“Mental health is something that's not talked about a lot. And it should be because for some reason athletes are looked as these perfect figures on TV, or in a particular advert smiling. But behind the scenes, it's tough. It is tough for me as well. Sometimes it gets hard, especially in this bio bubble away from family.”
Fully equipped and ready to conquer, Ishan Pandita returned to India in 2020 amidst the global pandemic. FC Goa were quick to latch on to the opportunity to sign the promising striker on a short-term deal.
But the Indian Super League’s reliance on foreign players meant opportunities were few and far between for Ishan.
Nevertheless, his determination saw him break into the starting XI for Goa towards the latter stages of the tournament, and he made telling contributions through late goals. Even national team coach Igor Stimac was impressed with the youngster and included him in the squad for international friendlies in March 2021.
But with a new home and a proven coach in Owen Coyle, Ishan Pandita is hopeful of scripting a new chapter in his eventful journey as a footballer.
“I picked Jamshedpur solely because of because of the trust I have in the coach. He is a fantastic coach and he's a striker. I'm 23 now. I'm still young and there's always room for improvement. But I can't be sitting on a bench anymore and coming in for five minutes. I came here to get minutes to help the team and just do my best. And I know I will,” he says, that distinct confidence hard to miss.
Foreigners Jordan Murray and Nerijus Valskis will fight him for that striker’s spot in the starting XI. But with Jamshedpur signing a foreigner less than the allocated quota, there is hope that their young Indian core will get minutes in the upcoming season.
Coach Owen Coyle recently said in an interview that his team was the perfect blend of hunger and experience. It is this hunger, sometimes literally in his past, that has driven Ishan Pandita forward.
“I'm going to be hungry until the last day I play. If I'm not hungry today, I'll retire,” he concludes.
Also read: 5 things to know about Ishan Pandita
Q. Who will be the highest scoring Indian striker in 2021-22 ISL season?
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